Carr making compelling case for autumn call-up
It's just two games in but, with Munster and Ulster first and second along with Connacht and Leinster in joint-third position, it's fair to say the newly revamped Magners League has started most encouragingly from an Irish perspective.
Indeed, had Connacht not been caught by Sean Lamont's winner at the death in Llanelli, it would be the men from the west alongside Munster leading the way.
While I accept Eric Elwood's understandable lack of interest in moral victories, privately he must be pleased with the substance of this latest Connacht performance on the road. It sets the squad up nicely for their next away game in this competition, against Glasgow at Firhill.
Yet again the pack delivered to order, with Ian Keatley providing sensible direction and taking every point-scoring opportunity that came his way. Add to that the clinically opportunistic try-scoring efficiency of Fionn Carr and it's little wonder defeat on this occasion cut so deep.
Competition for Declan Kidney's back three going into the November series will be hotting up in the coming weeks but with the versatile Carr taking up where he finished off last May, there's no reason why he should not be in the frame for selection in the autumn internationals. He's in there alongside Ian Dowling and Johne Murphy banging on the door.
Granted, Kidney is spoilt for choice, with Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Luke Fitzgerald and, when back to full fitness, Keith Earls and Andrew Trimble all pushing for that call, but when such obvious potential is being matched by consistency in form, the case for Carr will surely be there.
Both Munster and Ulster won ugly over the weekend, so to speak. But rest assured Tony McGahan and Brian McLaughlin will not see it that way.
The introduction of the heavy brigade saw Munster seal the deal at a soulless Murrayfield. At a time when every effort is being made to take the Celtic competition to another level, Scottish rugby is selling it -- and everybody involved -- short.
The perception provided by empty stands is that of a nation that couldn't care less. It does nothing for the marketing of the game, either within Scotland or without. Surely some sort of ground-sharing arrangement could be made at the homes of either Hearts or Hibernian soccer clubs in Edinburgh. Bear in mind that Tynecastle (home to 17,000-capacity Hearts) is no more than a healthy Chris Paterson hoof away.
Edinburgh rugby has regressed, certainly in attacking terms, since Andy Robinson moved on. Munster did what they had to do and though they left it late, they were fully deserving of the four-point return.
The introduction of international quintet -- John Hayes, Tomas O'Leary, Ronan O'Gara, Marcus Horan and Donncha O'Callaghan -- for the final quarter made the difference in the end and O'Leary, in particular, brought a different dynamic to the Munster attack.
Although it's early days yet, Munster have a strength in depth that augurs well for their assault on the Magners League. The trick for McGahan will be to suss out his most effective starting 15 for the Heineken Cup and specifically his centre pairing.
At full-back, Felix Jones is growing in confidence and already looks a very credible alternative to Paul Warwick, Denis Hurley or Earls in the last line. Assuming Earls regains full fitness, then he and Lifeimi Mafi make for the most creative and the most effective midfield combination. A little lightweight in defence perhaps, but there are ways and means of bolstering that up.
Beyond that, Denis Leamy's steady return is a timely boost for player, province and country alike. Most encouragingly of all, as at Leinster, is that there is a strength in front-row depth making the scrum a potent weapon for our leading two and -- whisper it -- with the Ulster and Connacht set-piece pretty close behind.
Ulster coach McLaughlin has some big decisions to make in relation to his middle five -- back row and half-backs. He's spoilt for choice in the back row, where ultimately balance will be the key.
The solution to the half-back conundrum will be in his use of Ruan Pienaar when the versatile Springbok arrives. Niall O'Connor appears to have the nod over the out-of-favour Ian Humphreys right now but, significant though O'Connor's goal kicking has been, the jury remains out in terms of overall control.
But full credit to Leinster's new main man Joe Schmidt when faced with the pivotal play-making call for the second week running (although, unlike Glasgow, this time the nod was in the heat of the moment with just minutes to kick-off) he showed he's prepared to learn and adapt as he goes.
The wrong and, in many ways, cowardly decision would have been to revert again to Isa Nacewa, given his previous experience in the out-half slot. Instead he went with gut instinct -- plus the lesson learnt from defeat in Glasgow -- and gave youth its fling in the guise of Ian Madigan at No 10. The former Blackrock College schoolboy slotted in admirably, with his bonus-point try providing the individual and collective icing on the night.
Beyond that, Nacewa was absolutely brilliant in everything he did and was a most worthy man-of-the-match recipient. The scrum was outstanding for the second week running, with all six front-row forwards -- Heinke van der Merwe, Cian Healy, Richardt Strauss, John Fogarty, Mike Ross and Simon Shawe -- contributing.
The omens are good for Irish rugby going forward, not least in the front row where, though all may not be indigenous, the reality is of a growing pool from which to draw. Horan and Hayes, for so long the propping core to Munster and Ireland, are both now having to fight for their provincial places -- and neither McGahan nor Kidney would want it any other way.
No silverware is handed out in September but just two games in, and there's already enough evidence to suggest an Irish assault that's set to go the distance.